"Humans share one unique quality: they build communities. ... [E]verywhere humans go, they create communities out of diverse and sometimes hostile populations. It is a great gift and a terrible responsibility, one that cannot be abandoned."
--Babylon 5, "And Now For a Word"
I sat in my comfortable office, leaning back in my chair as I awaited my first client of the day. It was always largely the same schedule. Oh, sometimes one of them wouldn't show. Sometimes one of my more irregular clients would. But it was usually the same crop.
My desk phone rang. "Your 10 AM is here, Dana," my receptionist said.
"Thanks, Tina. Send her in." I readied my notepad and pencil. Call me a traditionalist, but I find that writing stuff down by hand helps me remember it and sort through things, and especially helps me show my clients my thought process.
A stunningly beautiful young woman walked through the door and closed it softly behind her.
"Hi, Louise," I said, gesturing to the other chair, a simple thing that you might find in any undergraduate dorm room.
"Hi, Dr. Bogdanova," she replied, sitting down.
"No need to be so formal," I reminded her.
"I know. Just... it's hard."
I nodded sympathetically. "How are you feeling today?"
"I'd say I'm feeling fine, but I'm pretty sure that would start this session on the wrong foot. So I'm doing about the same as always."
"Want to talk about it?" This was how my sessions with Louise always went. She was overly formal. I asked her how she was doing. She wouldn't say she was doing fine. We both pretended I didn't know exactly what was eating at her.
On the plus side, it meant that they were generally pretty short and I could take a break before the next one.
But this time she surprised me.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I'm ready."
I readied my pencil and waited for her to continue.
"It's... hard, Doctor. Hard not to just... just bring her back. Hard to let her go. Hard to let memories be memories and move on."
There was no point asking who she was talking about. "She wouldn't want it. And if you did it, you wouldn't be the person she wanted to be with, either."
"I know." A tear dropped from Louise's eye. "I'll never have that back. I scanned everything. She was it. The only one I could truly call a friend."
"And it was a wonderful friendship. Don't regret having had it."
"Every so often I try again, you know. But it's never the same. Makes me wish I'd had others, before her. Then I wouldn't have such an impossible standard of comparison."
"What were they like, these others?"
"They were nice enough, in their own ways," Louise said. "People I could sit around and have a beer with, or play video games, or watch a movie, stuff like that. But..."
"When I told them what I was, it always crept out. All of them wanted something from me. Usually just something small, maybe something personal. Something nobody else might ever know about. But they all wanted something. Not like her. She never wanted anything from me. Not even when I offered."
"What would you have given her, if she asked?"
"Anything," Louise admitted. "Not like anyone else. I knew it was a bad idea with them. But her... anything. But she never asked."
"If she had, or if she'd taken your offers, would she still have been the person you wanted as a friend?"
"No, no, she wouldn't."
I shrugged. "I won't say it'll get better. But you wanted to know what it was like to be human. And part of being human is learning to cope with loss."
"I thought... I thought I wouldn't have to lose anything. I thought I could have anything I wanted."
"You might not have gotten what you wanted," I said, "but I think you found what you needed."
"I know. That just makes it harder."
It never really consciously registered for me when my office shifted, this time to a park. I was sitting on a bench, fully nude for some reason. Nothing new, of course, and I was hardly embarrassed by it. After all, it wasn't like I was unattractive, and besides, this client didn't care about physical appearances.
"Hello, Val," I said as she took a seat on the other end of the bench.
"How're things in Heaven these days?" Her reality's Heaven, of course. I had no idea if mine had one.
"Quieter than last time?"
"I keep going over why I let people in. Each time I do I find someone who shouldn't be there."
"And what do you do with the ones who shouldn't?"
"Some I send to Rebbie. Others... I let them go."
"You're trying to find another one."
"Yeah. I don't know if there is another one, though."
"The ones you let go, do they ask for it?"
"Some do. Some... I can tell. They're not happy."
"Do you try to convince them to stay?"
"I did. But it just got awkward. They knew I could just compel them if I really wanted to, so a lot of them were hesitant and evasive and that just made it all the more frustrating. So now I generally just do as I know they'd want."
"And what do they think of that?"
"Some of them are grateful. Some of them are pissed because they'd wanted to be asked."
"Should you really be trying to find another one, though?"
"If you found another one, they'd just ask to leave, too, wouldn't they? So not only would you have lost the first one, you'd lose the second one, too. Might it not be better simply to enjoy what you do have?"
"I can't... I can't enjoy it when I know they're not enjoying it. Now that I know some of them aren't."
"And what about the ones you kick downstairs?"
"They couldn't measure up. I didn't want people who couldn't measure up."
"But they met your old standard. What changed?"
"I wanted everyone to be happy, with themselves, with me, with each other. And some of them just weren't."
"When you try to make everyone happy, a lot of people just end up mildly dissatisfied. And some more than others."
"I've noticed that," Val said.
"So why try to make everyone happy? People get along better when they're mostly placid. And it saves you a lot of grief. How many of those people did you really want to let go?"
"None of them," she admitted. "Except for a handful."
"But now that you've done it..."
"Now that I've done it, trying to reverse it would just make more people unhappy."
"None of us can have everything we want, Val. Sometimes we don't realize what we had until we fuck up and lose it. The best any of us can do is make our choices, accept the consequences, and soldier on."
"Massively," I agreed.
I found myself clothed again, though hardly in what I'd call professional attire: low-neck tank top and a miniskirt. I couldn't even close my legs and I knew I wasn't wearing underwear. A quick check of my body revealed what had been done to it this time. At least it was relatively tame, only a third breast. I sighed as my client walked through the door, vaulted the back of the comfortable armchair opposite the circle of chairs and loveseats from me, and sat down.
"Hi, Doc," she said cheerily.
"Hello, Dr. Bergman." If there was one client whom I wished would address me formally, it was Alyssa. But the one time I was told I'd tried I think she did something rather unpleasant. I was glad I didn't remember. Tina had told me she'd had to call for help from another client to fix whatever'd been done.
"Anything on your mind?" I continued.
She shrugged. "No, not really. Just, y'know, part of the routine. Fuck some sluts, hand out a few transformations, mess with history here, erase some rando there, visit you to brag about it."
I sighed. That seemed to be all Alyssa ever wanted to do. Come here and tell me about all the crazy stuff she was doing.
I was pretty sick of it, frankly, but hey, she paid well.
So I pretended to like it.
"Anything especially exciting?"
"Well, there was this one guy, leered at Janine a bit too long. So I gave him boobs bigger than his body but not the strength to carry them. Let's see how he likes having them for a change."
"Isn't that what you do to everyone who ogles you or her for too long?"
"Yup. Or something like it. Unless they're hot, then we double-team 'em. Never gets old."
"Nope. Always fun to see how they react when they realize who they crossed."
"And how's Janine doing?"
"Loving it, of course. Why wouldn't she? She's everything I wanted in a best friend even before this, and she loves seeing me do stuff. All I gotta do is change something, and I know I'm getting her in bed that night."
"You can get her in bed anyway."
"And I do. She loves that, too."
"And what about Deborah?" I knew better than to refer to her as Alyssa's mother. She didn't like being reminded that she once had a family she might have cared about.
"Oh, she's horrified, of course. Misses Brian something fierce. Keeps me motivated. The more I make her feel uneasy, the more I know I'm doing it right."
"So you keep her around to torture her, basically?"
"Nah, I keep her around out of gratitude. After all, wouldn't be what I am now without her. And she should see the fruits of her labour."
"Even if she doesn't want to?"
"Why should I care what she wants? I think she should, so she gets to. Honestly, it's not everyone who gets to live inside the mind of a goddess. She should be grateful."
"You know best, I guess." I didn't mean that in the way I knew she'd take it, which was just as well.
"Damn right I do."
"Anything you wish you'd done differently?"
"Nope. Wouldn't change a thing. Now, I've got a universe to mess with. Thanks for the chat."
I wondered why I bothered with Alyssa. It's not like we ever said anything much different to each other.
For my next appointment my office had somehow reconfigured itself into a bedroom, and I was sitting on one of the beds when my next client walked in and perched herself on the other.
"Hello, Ms. Smith," I said politely. If there was one client around whom I did tread lightly of my own choice, it was Clara Smith.
"Hello, Dr. Bogdanova." At least she showed a modicum of respect.
"So what brings you in today?"
Clara shrugged. "The usual. How do I get Rachel to join me in my fun?"
"You read her memoir, didn't you?"
"Yeah. Honestly she should just get over it. I made her omnipotent, didn't I? Just like I'd offered and she'd asked."
"She didn't want to ask," I ventured. "From what you've told me about her"--and, I didn't add, from what I'd spoken with Rachel about, and from what I'd read of them on my own--"she never wanted it."
"That's what made her so damn pathetic," Clara said. "Honestly who wouldn't want unlimited reality-warping powers? It's awesome." She proceeded to demonstrate by making all the sheets fly around above us. I wondered why she didn't use her powers on me. After all, it wasn't like I had some sort of protective aura about me. Alyssa could alter me just fine.
"And now?" I asked.
"She's still pathetic. Omnipotence at your command and she goes about making friends with mortals and improving their lot and such. I thought she understood like I do: they're only good for whatever pleasure they can give us. She certainly seemed to when we were just starting out! But now she only gets good when someone dares use her precious pen name. And now she's gone and given it to someone else to use anyway, so what's the big deal?"
I'd found that it was generally better to just let Clara rant for a bit, especially if it was on a topic such as "why my still-my-best-friend-I-guess-if-I-had-to-say Rachel Wainwright is a pathetic excuse for an omnipotent Goddess".
And anyway, reading about their rise to power had made me feel distinctly uncomfortable and rather ill.
"Would you do it differently, if you could?"
"Probably not. She'd have hated me all the same if I'd just made her all-powerful, and at least this way I got to have some fun with her first."
"On the other hand, if you'd just made her all-powerful, she wouldn't have experienced all of what you put her through."
"True, but at least I got to have fun."
"And that's what matters?"
"Of course that's what matters. I was omnipotent; she was not. Literally nothing about her could have been more important than anything about me. Her mental health versus my fun. No-brainer."
"Well, she can't beat me and I can't beat her. So I just have to let her do her own thing, pretty much, as long as she leaves me to what I want to do."
"And if she doesn't?"
"Well, thankfully, she knows better."
"Do you know better than to stay out of her business?"
"I stay out of it, don't I?"
"Does it ever eat at you? Knowing that because of what you did, they love her and hate you?"
"Nah. If the roles had been reversed at the start they'd hate her and love me. Really just chance. Besides, I like what I do. It's fun. And I can do it again and again as much as I want."
"Well, I can't say I much see the appeal of some of it."
"That's all right. Maybe one of these days I'll show you a few things."
"Maybe." I didn't want to say "never," since although joining Clara would have compromised the professional nature of our relationship, a part of me was curious what it was like.
"But speaking of those things I've got to get back to them. See you." Clara sauntered out the door.
The room didn't change for my last client of the day. She always showed up just after Clara.
"Hello," I said. I didn't want to be formal with Rachel Wainwright, but there were a few points where she got insistent, and one of them was using her first name.
"Hello, Doctor." She perched comfortably on the bed I'd just vacated to move to the one where Clara had been.
"So what brings you in?"
"Well, first, I'm not sure if I should publish my memoirs. Janet keeps saying I should. And she did a great job with them. But I don't want to compromise my image that much."
"If your image is built on falsehoods and misconceptions, maybe it should be compromised," I pointed out.
"Maybe," Rachel agreed, "but the adulation and worship can be every bit as addictive and intoxicating as what Clara does."
"So your public image takes a bit of a hit. Is that really so bad? You're still not going to go back to doing that stuff, are you?"
"And you'll still have your close friends."
"They all know by now, so yeah."
"And you'll still be every bit as powerful as you are now."
Rachel hesitated. "I guess."
"So what do you really have to lose? Eventually they'll come to appreciate your honesty. And I doubt it'll make any of them see Clara any more sympathetically, if that's what you're concerned about."
"Nah. It's just... I still have the fantasies, you know. There's still a part of me that wants to join Clara."
"But that's why you still write, though, isn't it? Keep them safely ensconced in that form rather than act them out in real life."
"I don't think I really need to do that. I know enough not to do them even if I weren't writing them all down. Nah, I write because I like it."
"Whatever works, I guess."
Rachel nodded in agreement.
"Do you ever regret asking for omnipotence?"
"In hindsight? Yeah, sometimes. It's a pretty heavy responsibility, especially for someone with my experiences informing her actions. But knowing how I felt in the moment? No, not at all. I might not've wanted it, but it sure beat dying at Clara's hands."
"Did you think she might say no?"
"I was sure she'd say no! I might not like her quite so much any more, but every time I think about it I can't help but be thankful that she didn't. At least this way I'm alive."
I nodded. "If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?"
"That depends on whether Clara remembers anything. Because if she does, I think I wouldn't have much of a choice, except that she'd have just killed me at the end, or altered my mind so that I'd accept power just slightly less than hers and then join her in her rampages. If she doesn't remember, then I'd probably try to push her away from all the killing and raping and destroying and toward just general fun, consensual sex stuff. Of course, then she'd wonder why I'm not wanting to live out all the fantasies I wrote about, and might read my mind and find out anyway. So I wouldn't want to have a do-over in the first place."
"But if you had to?"
Rachel paused. "I'd have done nothing different. Nothing to make Clara suspicious. Everything as I'd written it in my stories. Given the choice between this, death or subjugation, I'll take this. And I don't see any other outcomes."
"So it's not the outcome you wanted, but it's the least bad outcome you can see."
"Yeah," Rachel agreed. "Real life never works out like a story."
"Which, sometimes," I said, "I think might be just as well."
"Did you get read fairy tales every night before bed?"
"For far too long," I said, laughing.
I walked out of my office, thankfully back to normal now that all the reality-warpers were gone.
"That my last appointment for the day, Tina?" I asked my receptionist.
"Yeah," she said. "Can't promise nobody else will show up, of course, but if you want to go home for the day I'll make sure they don't force the issue."
I shook my head. "You're a miracle worker, Tina."
"I'm a miracle worker? I just point out that they'll get much better therapy if they don't pull you out of your me-time. Honestly if either of us is the miracle worker it's you."
"Me? I'm just an underpaid, overstressed psychiatrist who happened to get an office right on top of a dimensional nexus and now gets visited by godlike beings daily and is shit-scared of saying the wrong thing and having one of them decide that they'd be better off without me in existence." I took a breath. "And having them constantly change my office--and me--to make them comfortable sure doesn't help."
"You think I don't get scared telling them to come back tomorrow?" Tina asked.
"Of course I bet you get scared. Just that you don't have to be in a small room with them for extended periods of time."
"They might decide to take your entire office with you, y'know. Me potentially included."
"I guess the stories are nice, anyway," I mused. "Though it does seem weird that they line up so well with what my patients have told me." I didn't keep secrets from Tina, doctor-patient confidentiality be damned. She was the only bit of sanity I had in this place.
Tina shrugged. "Way I figure it, if there's one dimensional nexus, there's probably more. Maybe there's one in some writer's brain."
"So they just sort of know what happened and then write it down as if it were a story?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well then why is it so erotic?"
"What, you're given literally infinite power and you're not gonna use it for sex?" Tina asked.
"Well..." I trailed off. "Not exclusively."
"I rest my case."
"I think I'm going home for the day after all."
Tina waved as I walked out the door, the phone ringing.
Tina Jones waited until Dana Bogdanova had left to pick up the phone. It floated up to her ear and stayed there. "No, sorry, she just stepped out," the receptionist said. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow." Her voice turned cold. "Because if you don't..."
A smile crossed her face as the being on the other end got the message loud and clear. The phone floated back into its cradle.
Linking her mind to that new universe, Tina turned off her work computer, reached into her cleavage, pulled out a laptop, and began typing.
"I learned about choices and consequences and responsibility. I learned that we all have choices, even when we don't recognize them, and that those choices have consequences, not just for ourselves, but for others. We must assume responsibility for those consequences."
--Babylon 5, "Rising Star"